Shawn Modula of Missoula speaks for all 250 paratroopers, including his wife, who plan to jump out of perfectly good airplanes next June onto an original 1944 drop zone in Normandy, France.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Modula said Thursday. “When you look at what the 82nd and the 101st (Airborne Divisions) and the British did for this operation when they were doing it live … it’s just superhuman to think people were that courageous and determined.”
Modula, 55, and his wife Annette Dusseau run Missoula Family Dental Clinic in the Southgate Mall, but in their former lives they were military parachutists who served in the 1980s and '90s in Germany and met after the Gulf War.
They’re among at least five area jumpers who’ve qualified to take part in a reenactment to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Although it’s not set in stone, they’re confident they’ll get to jump from a Missoula plane, the DC-3 (or C-47 in military parlance) once owned by Johnson Brothers Flying Service of Missoula. Best known for dropping smokejumpers to their tragic fates on the Mann Gulch fire north of Helena in 1949, the airplane was christened “Miss Montana to Normandy” in June.
Grounded since arriving in 2001 at its current home, the Museum of Mountain Flying at the Missoula airport, “Miss Montana” is being restored to airworthiness. The project is the focus of a growing group of aviation and history enthusiasts who are fundraising and volunteering to make its trip to Europe a reality.
Their next event is this Friday night, Sept. 21, when the museum hosts a beer launch for donors — the inaugural run of Big Sky Brewing Co.’s Miss Montana to Normandy beer.
Modula, Dusseau and the other jumpers will be there in replica World War II paratrooper uniforms. The group includes their neighbor, Dr. Kim Maynard, who was one of the nation’s first female smokejumpers when she jumped out of the Missoula base in 1982-1984.
Modula, a native of southeast Idaho, was instrumental in the beer launch. He’s on the board of directors of Big Sky Brewing. He’s also a member and former secretary of the Montana chapter of the Special Forces Association. After earning his Green Beret in 1994, Modula took command of a Special Forces High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) free-fall detachment and served until 1999.
He easily qualified by one standard for next year’s once-in-a-lifetime jump: a minimum of 10 lifetime parachute jumps. He’s not there yet for the other: One jump in the last year.
“I have not jumped in this century,” he said. “I’m old Special Forces. That’s part of the reason we’re helping with this fundraiser, so some of us rusty jumpers can get a few practice runs in.
“This is a heavy load for us. We represent the state of Montana in this deal if it lines up like we hope.”
The paratroopers reenacting the Normandy jump next June 6 as part of American’s D-Day Squadron will be made up of both former military paratroopers and Forest Service smokejumpers.
The 1st Special Service Force, called the Devil’s Brigade, was an elite American and Canadian commando unit in World War II. It trained at Fort Harrison in Helena in 1942.
“It’s a great Montana story with that aircraft being the Mann Gulch bird that was commissioned into service at the end of World War II,” Modula said. “Another thing that’s not well-known is that when the U.S. military was developing the airborne program, they sent folks to Seeley Lake to see what the smokejumpers were doing.”
That was in June 1940, weeks before Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson, graduates of the Seeley Lake training, became the first to jump on a forest fire. Cooley was the spotter on the Mann Gulch flight nine years later. Thirteen firefighters, all but one of them smokejumpers, died in the fire.
The Army contingent arrived in Missoula on June 25 aboard a B-18 bomber and was escorted by Forest Service personnel to the Seeley Lake smokejumper base. The contingent consisted of two mechanics and four officers, including Maj. William Lee, who became the first commander of the 101st Airborne and was known as the “father of airborne troops.”
According to an online biography, Lee was recuperating from a heart attack at his home in North Carolina during the Normandy invasion. Urged on by their current commanding general, troopers jumped from DC-3’s into the night sky over France shouting “Bill Lee!”
Modula said he and his fellow jumpers are treating their “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity with the utmost respect for their hosts in England and France.
“One thing that’s very compelling about that side of the story, these are people whose families were liberated by the airborne forces,” he said. “It’s a pretty cool salute to the U.S. forces from the folks over there.”
Still, the adventure won’t be without frivolity.
“There’s a safe bet we’re going to be drinking a good bit of British beer and French wine,” Modula quipped. “A lot of people ask if the Germans are going to be shooting at us. I tell them the only German shots we’re going to have are schnapps.”
As was the case with the original D-Day invasion, weather will play a decisive factor in 2019 for the commemorative jumpers.
“This thing is all fun and games until we’re sitting in Duxford (Airfield in England) and the winds at Normandy are 40 knots and we can’t jump,” said Modula. “We might end up drinking all day.”